Arguing to learn: challenging a viewpoint with mystery quotations

Ellis Parkman

Artwork representing good and evil (ice and fire fists)

What is the idea?

In a world less receptive to differing opinions, it is perhaps more important than ever to provide learners with a safe setting in which to learn how to argue effectively and professionally.

Mystery quotations allow learners to actively take charge of their learning during the research and verification stages. Moreover, students can pick aspects of the mystery quotes which resonate with them and shape their learning journey accordingly. This facilitates the opportunity for incidental learning (Kelly, 2012) to take place.

Mystery quotes can be run in a multitude of ways including with focus on research or soft skills. The activity ultimately allows learners to learn by doing (Gibbs, 1988), complementing the cyclical activities Gibbs discussed in his work. Through the use of mystery quotations learners are provided the opportunity to review a quote (analyse), form an argument, stance or viewpoint (action planning, feeling, evaluating, concluding) and finally report their findings or viewpoints back to the rest of the group of learners (describing, concluding).

While there are a number of ways one may wish to perform the mystery quotation activity, a common theme is withholding the origin of the quote, thus providing the ‘mystery’. The purpose of withholding this information is to allow learners to research the subject, ideally without bias, and to seek out more opinions and information than they are presented with via the mystery quotation, providing an opportunity to use and showcase an array of skills. Information on how you can adapt the scenario for research or for soft skills focus is detailed below.

Mystery quotations also provide the opportunity for learners to interact with each other on a personal level; amplifying their soft skills. This can be explicitly facilitated in asking learners to provide feedback on the experience after the activity has been completed. Question prompts from the teacher can assist, such as: ‘How difficult was it to professionally argue your point?’, ‘What did you enjoy / dislike during this process?’, or ‘What skills were you demonstrating as part of this process?’.

It is important to make sure quotes are direct and accurate, in-depth knowledge of the subject is not essential for learners, as this could be used as an activity to focus learners on new content as a flipped learning approach (Miedany, 2018).

Why this idea?

Mystery quotations can easily be adapted for any topic area and can generate and move conversations somewhat authentically, in line with the interests of the learners engaging with the topic.

Not only does this provide the opportunity for learners to grapple with their subject matter in a more practical manner, it facilitates the enhancement of soft skills. Learners have the freedom to present information in a manner which suits them, rather than a manner prescribed to them.

Additionally, learners are provided the opportunity to discuss / argue in a safe environment, which can help their confidence, public speaking, and research skills – skills that may not be directly related to their subject matter but are important and transferable skills for the workplace, further education settings or even pastoral / personal matters.

How could others implement this idea?

Mystery quotes for research

In this method, a member of staff, or a designated individual from the class selects several quotes from a topic. Students are then encouraged to research the topic further, and to find supporting or contrasting information to present back to the class and are made aware that other students or groups will be able to question them on their research.

This method allows students to practice their research skills, providing an opportunity for students to weigh up the reliability of sources of information, prepare balanced (or unbalanced) arguments and justify their approaches. When performing this as a research-based task the importance is not so much on the stance the students take, but the depth of information they can access, the way they present that back to their peers and the research approaches they take to access and verify information.

Mystery quotes for soft skills

When providing this activity to focus and practice soft skills, put students into groups and provide two mystery quotes. Have them provide arguments supporting each quote and justify these arguments / discuss these with the rest of the group and eventually back to the class.

In this scenario focus should also be placed on teaching students how to critique or question in a professional manner (you may wish to discuss topics such as leading questioning within this).

Examples / ideas for quotes

Topics covered can range greatly, but consider quotes which are thought provoking, emotive or controversial, and ideally well researched.

Examples of mystery quotes could include:


Example Quote

Global Warming

‘Human activity isn’t the only factor that affects the Earth’s climate’ (one group argue for, one against)

History / Politics / Economics: Communism

‘Communism may help lessen the gap between poor and the rich’ (one group focus on the positives of communism, one group on the negatives)

Transferability to different contexts

This activity can be adapted for learners of different ages, or even for business purposes. The subject matter selected can be relevant to different courses, specialties, or business sectors. In order to engage different audiences, the primary focus will be on the content (the quotes) selected. You will also need to supply instructions tailored to the correct standard for learners of different ages or abilities, to ensure they fully understand the task.

The skills learned as part of this activity are applicable to real life decision making scenarios, allows learners how to argue effectively, diplomatically and safely, and allows learners to practice their communication skills.


Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit.

Kelly S. W. (2012). Incidental learning. In: Seel N.M. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (pp. 1517-1518). Springer.

Miedany, Y. E. (2018). Flipped learning. In: Rheumatology Teaching: The Art and Science of Medical Education (pp. 285-303).

Image attribution

Good versus evil artwork by Matryx on Pixabay

About the author

Ellis Parkman is a Consultant Learning Technologist, and co-founder of Pea Consultancy, with her partner Matt and trusty rescue dog Ernie. Ellis has worked with private enterprises and the education sector, with particular focus on staff training and upskilling, and creation of engaging online content.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Ellis Parkman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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